Tamales (pl.): masa-wrapped, cheesy-vegetable goodness cooked in a corn husk. The actual nomenclature is a hotly debated issue, but I will chalk it up to import error and just give y’all both terms! Spanish singular: tamal; English singular: tamale.
Tamales really are such a treat. They are often considered to be extremely difficult to make, but honestly, this recipe did not take us more than two hours. Many tamales have meat fillings, which require extensive cooking of their own, and that is what makes them so difficult. However, these vegetarian versions were easy enough that we even decided to make two varieties, which made eating them really fun!
As a history buff, I can’t neglect the tamal’s incredible origins. This is such a cool food in that you can truly see its origins (even in the modern dish). Aztec and Mayan populations are known to have eaten tamales. You can imagine corn being picked and milled for flour, with the husks being saved for later use. Clearly, this dish is about utilizing every bit of a plant, and this was a great technique for doing so.
In ancient Mesoamerican cooking, a common technique for steaming involved digging a pit in the ground, lighting a fire, and covering the food with brush and leaves to let it slowly cook. Many people still use this technique today all across the globe, and there are tons of names for it: the New Zealand hangi, Samoan umu, Mayan pib, and the Peruvian huatia. Although today most of us will use a steamer or double boiler to cook tamales after they are wrapped, the ancient technique of using the corn husk remains.
As a side note: if you are interested in global food connections, look up zongzi. These are essentially an ancient East Asian version of tamales, which use rice products instead of corn products!
makes roughly 17-25 tamales, depending on the size of corn husk
for the masa dough
2 sticks salted butter
4 cups masa harina
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons cumin
2 teaspoons ground pequin chiles (alternatively: chile powder)
4 cups vegetable broth (pre-make if using bouillon cubes)
for the fillings
3 green onions
2 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup vegetable broth
1 bunch cilantro
2 roma tomatoes
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon pequin chile
1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1 poblano pepper
6 ounces queso fresco
kosher salt and pepper to taste
First, place 20-30 corn husks in a large bowl filled with water. Weigh them down and let them soak for at least 30 minutes.
Next, prepare the masa dough. Take the butter out to soften, and combine the masa farina, baking powder, salt, cumin, and chili powder in a large bowl. If you are using dried pequin chilis, you can use a coffee or spice grinder turn them into a powder. Personally, I prefer them because that have a more complex flavor and add a little bit more heat to the dough!
When the butter is soft enough, mix it in with the dry ingredients to create a crumble. (You’ll probably need to use your hands!) Finally, slowly add in the vegetable broth until everything is combined.
Next, prepare your fillings! Wash and chop the zucchini and green onions. Mince the garlic. Combine these in a pan with the olive oil and sauté for 3 minutes.
After the zucchini has cooked a bit, add in the vegetable broth.
While the zucchini mixture is cooking, wash and chop a bunch of cilantro. I find it easiest to simply chop off the stems en masse and mince from there. Wash and chop the tomatoes, and squeeze the juice out of your 1/2 lime! Add the cilantro, tomatoes, and lime juice into the pan. Stir everything together, adding in the cumin and chili powder.
After much of the liquid has cooked off (this might take a bit of patience), stir in the cheddar cheese. Add salt and pepper to taste.
For the second, milder filling: simply chop the poblano pepper and queso fresco. Stir them together with salt and pepper to taste. I found this filling a great contrast to the heavier zucchini filling, and it was really nice to be able to have one of each with my meal.
Now you are ready to assemble your tamales! For each one, you want to take a corn husk and spread some masa dough onto it. We found that it was easier to spread with fingers than a spoon.
Be generous with the masa, as it will bake around the filling and keep it from spilling out.
Top the masa with a tablespoon or two of your desired filling.
Next, carefully use the corn husk to wrap the filling in the masa dough. I will say that we did not start off using this technique (we just closed the corn husks like burritos). Making sure that the masa dough is actually encasing the filling will make your final product prettier, and yummier (in my opinion!). Cover the tamal with the husk and wrap it in string to keep it closed.
At this point you can place the tamal in a colander or your steamer.
Continue this process with each tamale, until you run out of filling or masa!
1: Spread masa dough onto corn husk with hands.
2: Add filling on top of masa dough.
3: Wrap dough around filling.
4: Fold in corn husk, however you prefer and tie with string.
Place all of your wrapped tamales into a colander or steamer.
If you have a steamer, steam them for 90 minutes. If you don’t, you can use this neat trick from Tasty Kitchen: put two quarts of water in a large pasta pot, over medium-high heat. Put the colander with the tamales in over the top (we got lucky and ours sealed perfectly!). If there is not a great seal, you can use tin foil to fix this. The tamales should not be touching the water. Cover the pot and steam for 90 minutes, checking every now and then to ensure your water hasn’t all boiled off.
After 90 minutes, cut them open and enjoy!
I later made a chile sauce to go on top, but they are delicious even without it!